By David F. Guertin, Jr.
After fifty-seven years at the helm of his iconic schooner Shenandoah, Captain Robert S. Douglas and his family have announced their intention to pass down Captain Douglas’ beloved ship to the Foundation for Underway Experiential Learning (FUEL). Based in Vineyard Haven, MA, FUEL is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by two of Douglas’ protégés, Captain Ian Ridgeway and Captain Casey Blum, LCSW.
“Sailing Shenandoah is what I wanted to do with my life more than anything else,” said Douglas. “It’s been my major focus and time commitment since 1964. I know that the ship and program will be in qualified hands. Casey and Ian both came up through the hawsepipe, meaning they climbed the ranks aboard my ships. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Under the Black Dog flag, an emblem recognized worldwide, Shenandoah has brought more than 5,000 Island children on voyages back in time and out to sea. For many kids, their week on Shenandoah is their first time away from their parents, and developmental breakthroughs are frequent. FUEL has accepted the duty to carry on this treasured educational programming for Island children. However, the ship needs mandatory repairs this winter in order to operate next spring. Until the Shenandoah can sail again, the program is under threat.
“It’s painful to imagine the Vineyard Haven waterfront without the Shenandoah at anchor,” said James Anthony, President of the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank Charitable Foundation. “We are excited to see the FUEL team working to continue this longtime Island tradition. Children and young adults learning collaboration and self-reliance at sea are vital to understanding ourselves and our community; not to mention the importance of maintaining the Island’s maritime history and culture.”
FUEL has launched a time-sensitive $1 million campaign to ensure Shenandoah’s unique educational programming can continue for Island youth. With one hundred percent participation from FUEL’s board of directors, a $50,000 matching challenge and $350,000 raised to date by lead supporters, the campaign has started strong. Phil Hale, the owner of Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, expressed, “We are happy to be a part of the FUEL program. We believe a working waterfront is a crucial component of the future of Tisbury. Getting kids out on the water is a critical part of the working waterfront’s success.”
FUEL was founded in 2017 by Ian Ridgeway and Casey Blum, former captains of the tall ships Shenandoah and Alabama. Ridgeway and Blum have dedicated their careers to helping young people overcome difficulties in their lives through the challenging and inspiring experiences of sailing and handling a ship at sea. In creating FUEL, they intend to carry out Captain Douglas’ vision to advance tall ship educational programming on Martha’s Vineyard by building a Shenandoah 2.0 to succeed Shenandoah. “This is the next chapter of the same story,” Ridgeway explained. “The new ship will be more accessible and enable year-round programming, expanding the number of youth served and offering deeper-impact experiences.”
“I was compelled to join FUEL’s board because my children have benefited significantly from sailing on Shenandoah,” said John Keene, President of John Keene Excavation. “We must preserve tall ship programming for Martha’s Vineyard. I encourage all island residents and businesses to jump in at this moment so we can do something now that improves the lives of children for years to come.”
The value of Shenandoah’s educational programming cannot be understated. For over thirty years, Captain Douglas has welcomed 4th and 5th-grade students from the six Island elementary schools for immersive, overnight sailing voyages. This experience has become a rite of passage for children that grow up on Martha’s Vineyard, as generations of families have now participated throughout the past decades.
“Environmental education is a priority for us,” said Ridgeway, who earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies. “We have exciting plans to integrate hands-on lessons aboard Shenandoah to heighten the understanding of human impacts on our oceans and wildlife. While aboard the vessel, students can learn environmental lessons that are easier to understand aboard a ship. They learn that resources are limited, electricity comes at a cost, and our waste is something we have to deal with. One week aboard Shenandoah is packed with lessons in better understanding our role on this planet.”
FUEL’s Program Director, Casey Blum, is a Licensed Certified Social Worker in Massachusetts. She holds dual Master’s Degrees from the University of New Hampshire in Outdoor Education and Social Work. “I am most excited to add a personal development component to Shenandoah’s existing curriculum,” she said. “Anecdotally, we know that the impacts of Shenandoah’s programs have been far-reaching and extensive. Ask any alumni. They will tell you how they gained confidence, conquered a fear, strengthened their tolerance to adversity, etc. These skills are transferrable and necessary to lead a healthy, productive life. We are also eager to start measuring the outcomes students are reporting. The data will provide us a greater understanding of the value of this programming, how it impacts the students’ lives, and inform future curriculum.”
“I am very excited that Ian and Casey have plans to challenge young adults in physical and intellectual ways to address their emotional health needs specifically,” declared Dr. Dan Garvey, president emeritus of Prescott College and a former trustee of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). “It is innovative and urgent work that can be piloted on Shenandoah then scaled up on the next ship. As a proud member of FUEL’s advisory board, I am ready to help wherever possible. Our research proves the need for this.”
FUEL’s plan to add sailing programming that includes young adults comes after careful consideration of the Island’s needs. As cited in a recent study commissioned from Island charitable organization MVYouth, “Approximately 72% of young adults age 19 to 25 are likely to need post-secondary pathways support.” FUEL intends to provide this support through meaningful, immersive voyages focused on personal development, mariner competency training, and life skills development. “We have identified a strong need to support young adults here on Martha’s Vineyard,” said MVYouth executive director Lindsey Scott. “The FUEL team is doing important work to develop programs for this underserved demographic.”
As this new chapter for Shenandoah takes shape, Captain Douglas will still be at the wheel when he can be, and will stay involved by guiding the maintenance and operation of his beloved schooner. He encourages his friends and those who consider Shenandoah a vital feature of island life to help keep the program going. “We’ve been doing this for fifty-seven years,” said Douglas. “Let’s ensure six more decades offering this unique opportunity for Vineyarders.”
FUEL’s time-sensitive fundraising drive has $650,000 left to raise, and the organization is appealing to the Martha’s Vineyard community and the Northeast sailing community for large and small contributions. To make a tax-deductible gift to the Shenandoah Campaign, visit ShenandoahFund.org or contact Ian Ridgeway at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about FUEL’s plans for Martha’s Vineyard’s new tall ship, log onto the FUEL website. ■
David F. Guertin, Jr. is a nonprofit fundraising professional and President of Vantage in Philanthropy, Inc., a Newport, RI-based consulting firm. David has worked with numerous maritime education and ocean conservation organizations across the United States. Raised in Bristol, RI, David spent his early years with the Herreshoff Marine Museum, then co-founded Bristol Marine, a full-service boatyard. He then served as Development Director at Battleship Cove and the Aquidneck Land Trust before founding his firm. A member of the Newport Yacht Club, he lives with his family in Fairfield, CT and Newport, RI.